People over retirement age should be required to do community work or lose some of their pension, urged former Benefits Agency head Lord Bichard.
According to this cross-bench peer, this would stop older people from being a “burden on the state". Political parties might shy away from this as a vote-loser. But the fact that this suggestion can be seriously made shows how much the notion of entitlement to welfare, and ordinary people’s human worth, has been eroded in today’s UK.
He argued that those no longer working full time should be incentivised to make “a useful contribution” to society, for instance “the care of the very old”. In his view, “We are now prepared to say to people who are not looking for work, if you don't look for work you don't get benefits, so if you are old and you are not contributing in some way or another maybe there is some penalty attached to that."
Obviously, it would be low to middle income pensioners who would be most affected – members of the ruling class such as Lord Bichard himself would for the most part have enough wealth to live comfortably without a state pension.
Lord Bichard would appear not to have done his homework. According to research published by WRVS in 2011, Gold age pensioners: valuing the socio-economic contribution of older people in the UK, “older people made a positive net contribution of £40 billion to the UK economy in 2010... by 2030, the positive net contribution of over 65s will rise to an estimated £77 billion.”
This includes factoring in that “Provision of social care by older people is £34 billion” and “Hidden value of older people’s volunteering reaches £10 billion per annum”.
In 2012 the Daycare Trust estimated that nearly 3.5 million adults in Britain – many of them pensioners – provide childcare for their grandchildren. Those over pension age already contribute huge amounts to society, in addition to all they have done in the course of their lives.
It is also questionable how practical it would be to pressure pensioners to undertake work other than on a voluntary basis in view of their own health problems and impairments. Life expectancy and the likelihood of ill health and disability are affected by socio-economic status, so the poorest pensioners would be most likely to be sick or disabled.
While the government has shown itself more than willing to classify seriously ill, even dying, people of working age as fit for work, it could be embarrassing if people over pension age (which has anyway risen) kept collapsing on the job. It is also likely that many frail ninety-year-olds would rather be assisted to the commode or raised in a hoist by trained careworkers than seventy-year-old neighbours.
At one time it was widely accepted that those whose hard work enabled others to amass fortunes, and who paid tax and National Insurance from their own often meagre earnings, would be entitled to basic assistance when they or their children needed it. Indeed, the loss of earnings when a socio-economic crisis led to mass unemployment might be resented.
Now, however, those receiving 'welfare' are the subject of widespread resentment, and it is widely regarded as fitting that even someone who has worked for thirty or forty years, if he or she is made redundant or becomes seriously ill, should not only be reduced to penury but also humiliated as a 'scrounger' In this climate, pensioners too may be seen as a target.
But there is more to life than making others rich. If people survive to pension age, perhaps there is something to be said for allowing them to rest, explore their gifts and abilities in new ways, cultivate relationships or even have time to reflect on the meaning of life.
(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.